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S. M. Hutchens on the Eighth Commandment
The Eighth Commandment, “Thou shalt not steal,” met for many months a block in my own mind, for I had surprising difficulty determining to my own satisfaction what stealing was. Theft, it would appear, is unlawful deprivation of ownership, but ownership is a problematic concept whose connections with the mind and will of God are easily obscured by thinking in terms of political and legal philosophy. Whether we lean toward the communalist or individualist pole, we tend to think of property held privately or in common as a natural right recognized and protected by the state. These conceptualizations carry a strong secular bias and should not be entirely satisfactory to people who believe in God.
Those of us raised in American churches during the cold war years may remember this part of the theological argument against communism: Judeo-Christian faith assumes the existence of private property, for it has laws against theft that are meaningless without private ownership. The clear line between mine and thine, it was implied, could only be changed by a bona fide legal transfer or an act of God. This comported well with the doctrine of grace in which all that we are and have are gifts of God, for a gift is something given and received. It does not pass from one to another unless there is a severance, a donation in which the proprium of the giver becomes in the same sense and to the same degree that of the receiver.
But we were also just as clearly taught the other side of the doctrine of grace: that all we have in this world, including our very selves, belongs to God, and that we are stewards, caretakers. No one is his own, but bought, with all he has, as a slave, at the full disposal of the Lord. The first of these ideas—the Bible’s cognizance and condemnation of theft—supports the idea of ownership, individual and corporate; the second makes all theft essentially theft from God, and relativizes, some would say obliterates, any claims to private ownership. Early Christians had all things in common, did they not? What could be a more fitting example of fraternal life in the household of God, where each receives according to his need, and each gives according to his ability?
God the Owner, Man the Possessor
In English and American common law the highest form of ownership is in fee simple, wherein property is conceived as granted by the sovereign and held at his pleasure. Holding from the king comports with the views we must take if we believe in a God who is himself, in the final instance, the only real Owner.
This does not, however, efface the laws of possession, but rather makes stealing the wrongful alienation of what by divine donation pertains to another, a definition that accommodates the laws of the state, but to which they are ancillary—obliged to serve the higher claims and interests of “what God hath brought together.” Things pertain to us in varying ways and degrees because it is by these means that God has set the bounds of our habitation—the conditions under which we come into being and pursue our lives. Some of these things that pertain to us are under our control in such a way that we speak of owning them, either individually or collectively. This is only allowable, however, if we remember that we “own” things only in a manner of speaking, in a limited way.
Possession as a gift from God is a concept with variables that encompass the nature and degree of many kinds of having. I do not possess my wife or my children in the same way I possess my home, nor my home in the same way or to the same degree I possess my dinner or handkerchief. In the end, however, all kinds and degrees of possession are contingent upon forces beyond my control that terminate in the will of God, as Job understood. When his children and property were taken from him, he recognized that behind it all was the hand of God—the Lord (not the desert wind or Sabean raiders) gives, and the Lord takes away.
While there are innumerable means of granting and obtaining what may be possessed—from inherited capabilities or the upbringing given by one’s parents, to grants of the state, to the sweat of one’s brow, to mere luck (randomness is one of the most fascinating creatures of God, one of greatest proofs of his sovereignty)—each instance of possession is exactly as secure as God makes it, and from our point of view, both the security and the depth of our association with our possessions may be counted upon only to the degree that we are allowed to know the mind of God on the matter. It is all too easy to confuse secondary means of possession and the rights and privileges we trust accompany them for the primary, and from this arises much of our confusion about what possession fundamentally is, and therefore what theft is.
Tevye, the godly Jew in Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman, presents God with a great many reasons why it wouldn’t hurt to make him a little bit rich. God responds by showing him riches he already has, and, as if to drive the point home, adds others of the same sort, to where they become more than the man can bear or comprehend. Whatever misapprehensions Tevye—and those who have grown up in the same Scriptures—might have about God’s way of working, he does understand something that no longer goes without saying in a post-Christian culture: All goods that we have or can hope to have come from the hand of God, who determines the conditions of our existence.
How to Steal
The sin of theft is in the first and most essential sense an offense against God and the selfhood of the thief. It is an unlawful attempt to thwart the will of the Creator that one should be who one is and nothing else, an attempt to intervene unlawfully in the sovereign act of one’s own creation by saying to God, “Not thus, but rather thus; not thy will be done, but mine.” In this act the thief loses the ability to know himself, himself, that is, as a creature of God whose metes and bounds are ultimately determined by divine authority. Instead, he, in adding to himself that which he thinks good from that which is not his, constructs and serves an idol—an inauthentic self—that stands as an affront to the Creator and must be struck down. The unlawful taking involves an alienation of divine prerogative, a trespass on the word and will of God as it applies to the taker, who in the paradoxical attempt to increase himself, diminishes.
If prayer is the form of man’s essential act of submission to the will of God, theft is un-prayer and will un-man the man who steals, however much it may otherwise enlarge him. In amassing to himself that which he has not been granted, he compromises his being with superfluity until finally, like the decomposing body he has become, his elements, adhering to their alien attachments, fall from the self as now themselves alien, and are carried away by others. While in obedience, the intention of which true prayer is the expression, one decreases in the things of the world while increasing before God; in theft, the opposite happens.
If this is so, much striving for this world’s goods that is considered both lawful and honorable is also theft, for it involves displacement of goods, therefore superfluities and dearths, which involve unjust taking and the making of false selves that run contrary to the will of God. Those who see the accumulation of wealth as wrong in itself—while erring on that point, for there is nothing wrong with honest gain—are instinctively correct in their intuition that this very frequently involves theft as we are describing it here.
Insurance Against Theft
Stealing from God invariably involves stealing from men, not because one thing leads to another, but because human selfhood, like divine selfhood, is realized and accomplished only as a gift to others. As the Holy Trinity subsists in the act of self-giving, so it is with us, and so we rise up into the image of God by giving the self to others, which God accepts as a giving to him. Theft compromises and diminishes what we thieves were intended to be, and hence what we were made to give, so that a kind word by an honest poor man is a greater gift than a kingdom taken by theft, as our Lord attempted to show his disciples with a widow’s offering that he identified as panta ton bion—not simply her whole living in the sense of her livelihood, but in the judgment of God (in the felicitous ambiguity of the Greek translation) her entire self, given, and accepted, as a gift.
Those from whom things are taken, even if the taking is of their life, are not necessarily diminished by it, but on the contrary, may be enlarged. Diminution only happens if there is agreement with the essential and characteristic error of the thief himself in believing that what is taken was someone’s to keep. If the one from whom something is stolen, however, gives it up as a gift he has received, he is rightly oriented in this relinquishment to the inexhaustible fountain of every blessing. All things are his in the Savior, and whoever participates in him, thus in the life of God, will be enlarged accordingly, as was our Lord, the Forerunner in all these matters. In rendering up the inexpressible value of the life of the incarnate God at the behest of evil men and spirits, he received a recompense beyond conception from the Father.
This does not mean theft is impossible. It is possible in every personal relationship marred by sin. The engine of theft is the lie, and what is called theft is merely a lie—the denial of an attribute or possession—given feet. It is misappropriation; its opposite in law is justice, and in the perfection that is in the gospel, charity, which is the giving of the self to the other, the voluntary making of one’s self the possession of the beloved. In love there is no possibility of theft, for there is no possible thief. The one who gives himself cannot take unlawfully, but can only receive what he himself is given, and therefore is, in the return of love. Much theft goes about in the habiliments of love, but this happens because evil knows what to imitate. To the degree a man loves he cannot steal. &8226;
S. M. Hutchens works as a reference librarian in Kenosha, Wisconsin. He holds a doctorate in theology. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.